Othello - Frantic Assembly (Theatre Royal Plymouth) Review
Pictures in this review may not feature the 2022 touring cast
I feel the need to start this review with a little bit of truth about me. I will willingly put my hands up and say that I have never got Shakespeare, I have always struggled with it as a whole. I was never really shown it at school, other than that modern retelling of ‘Romeo & Juliet’. But other than that, I had to sit and read it and be expected to understand it and the whole act of having it drilled into me made it all the harder to like it. And other than the cheeky and fun-loving twist on the great playwright as portrayed in musical hit ‘&Juliet’ and a modern retelling of ‘Henry V’, I really haven’t had much experience of Shakespeare since school, and that was some time ago.
But here we are reviewing a production of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, but even to someone like me who has little knowledge of it, I can safely say that this is a version like no other.
Theatre company Frantic Assembly are famed for their intense movement and physicality, combining this here with Shakespeare’s tragedy of murder, sex and paranoia and placing the story in a modern world of bar brawls, jealousy, and crime all set in around a pub. Here Othello (Michael Akinsulire) is the cool man, the leader of a gang who rule the roost, and the one with the beautiful wife Desdemona (Chanel Waddock). But jealousy is mounting with a number of others having eyes of Desdemona and Othello’s friend Iago (Joe Layton) becomes an organiser of chaos, designer a plot to tear the group apart. He plants the idea that Desdemona is cheating on Othello with his comrade Cassio (Tom Gill), turning Othello into a paranoid mess of a man, whilst teasing the somewhat outcast Roderigo (Felipe Pacheco) with the possibility of getting Desdemona for himself. What follows is twisted truths, allegations, and fights to the death.
For those, like myself, who struggle with the Shakespearean language, the modern setting does help the audience to understand the story in context, inserting situations of jealously and lies that could happen anywhere in the modern age without taking away from the original text. The original story is both honoured and reworked here, peppering the action with Frantic Assembly’s unique style of movement complete with intricately performed lifts and dance moves that both accelerate the fight scenes and add a tenderness to the romances.
The performers, dressed in jogging bottoms and sports branded shirts throughout, use a variety of accents, not only placing the production but giving a familiarity to the characters as people you could see from day to day. The marriage bed of the more classic productions is replaced by a pool table with all of the action bouncing around it and an effective set of a pub provides the backdrop for fights, arguments, and meetings.
The action is full on throughout, dance meets dialogue and music illustrates the emotions of the characters, and whilst I admit to still struggling at times with the language, the performances of the cast carry the piece.
The auditorium was full of school groups, students studying the text and the sense of excitement was easy to fill with rapturous applause at the beginning and end of both acts. This evident enjoyment of the production perhaps highlights the importance of bringing young people to see a Shakespeare production in the flesh and makes me wonder if I would have found the work of the famous playwright both easier and more enjoyable had I had more of an opportunity to see it for myself at the time.
This modern re-working (it’s not a retelling, saying true to the text with its own style) of ‘Othello’ lifts the text and sends it kicking and screaming into a modern world, a world that the common man can understand and almost place themselves into. It is intense and extreme with its emotion, but goes to show the power of a lie and the paranoia a lie can create, with disastrous outcomes.